Always.., Patsy Cline

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By Philip Pearce

A VISIT TO JEWEL THEATRE COMPANY’S Always.., Patsy Cline is a lot of fun, but if you’re headed for the Colligan in Santa Cruz to see it you need to know in advance what you’re in for. It’s not, like the recent Carole King musical Beautiful, an exploration of the slings and arrows of fame and fortune in the cut-throat world of pop music. By evening’s end, all you’ve discovered, if you didn’t already know it, is that Patsy Cline was an inspired vocal innovator who made the transition from Grand Ole Opry hee-haw to top-of-the-charts pop fame. And that she became friendsc a few years before dying in a plane crash, with an affable, outgoing Texas matron named Louise Seger.

The story, such as it is, covers a night when Louise, an avid fan, arrived early for a Cline concert, and met, helped and opened her Houston home to her idol. After which they wrote to each other.

Most of this is told direct to the audience by Louise, who calls it the high point of her life (“Take me now, Lord”) but Texan Ted Swindley’s script never asks how it changed her or affected Patsy. Brief provocative wisps of Cline biography keep drifting past and become the flimsy structure on which the show strings 27 terrific musical numbers. Louise mentions, almost in passing, that Patsy was having marital problems at the time, but all that happens as a result is that Patsy sings a torchy number called “She’s Got You.” Louise discovers that while Patsy is touring she misses her children, but who they are and how she relates to them are never revealed. Patsy just sings, “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child).” Even when Patsy dies in a plane crash, Louise simply reports the fact and mentions the Grand Ole Opry television tribute. It’s as if Swindley didn’t want this piece of real life drama to step on the pervading high-spirited feel-good atmosphere. It’s easy to think of Always…Patsy Cline as a musical, but almost impossible to think of it as a play.

All that said, Jewel has equipped it with the scenic stagecraft and high production values that have helped earn the company one of only twelve National Theatre Company grants awarded this year. A six-man combo headed by Ben Dorfan is sensationally on-target with their country-western music and the lead roles are played by two of the most gifted actresses in the Monterey Bay region.

Actually, Diana Torres Koss does most of the acting in the role of Louise. With a bouncy assurance that had the opening night crowd cheering, she strode around the stage, darted up and down the aisles in her boots and cowboy hat, “worked” the audience with countrified jokes and even scooped up a startled front-row moppet and stomped him off into a dance number.

In the title role, Julie James was a revelation to me. I knew her powers as an actress but I’d never before experienced her brilliance as a singer. More than just a vocalist, she uses standards like “Crazy,” “Your Cheating Heart” and “You Belong to Me” to produce a telling and wonderful imitation of the melodic scoops and heart-beats and yodels of Patsy Cline.

She and Torres Koss work together like a veteran show-biz team. It’s sad they couldn’t use all that talent to reveal the real ups and downs of Patsy and Louise, which are suggested more provocatively in Shaun Carroll’s director’s notes than in any of the words of the existing script.

The show plays weekends at the Colligan through December 3rd.

Photo by Steve DiBatolomeo

 

Young Frankenstein

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By Philip Pearce

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a big, funny musical based on a big funny movie of the 1970s based on a camp horror film classic of the 1930s based on a philosophical gothic novel of the early 1800s.

Western Stage’s new production proves they have the technical skill and equipment to handle the ins and outs of the show’s wild and wide-ranging, pseudo-scientific nonsense. There is a fine blaring orchestra, ably led by Don Dally, for the tunes. There’s an all-singin’, all-dancin’ cast who more than do justice to this crazy tale of do-it-yourself immortality.

Asleep at the theatrical switch, I have only just realized that the classy music and lyrics, not just the book of this and of The Producers are also the work of that king of slapstick comedy Mel Brooks.

If you like a comforting and uplifting evening at the theater, Mel’s not your man. He has grasped the truth that comedy is at heart subversive. His best pieces are blatant frontal attacks on established standards of good taste and feel-good theatre. The Producers centers in the rancid proposition that a musical based on Hitler and the Third Reich could become a smash hit with Broadway audiences. Young Frankenstein plays fast and loose with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s serious philosophical musings about the possibility that nineteenth century science might defy God by creating human life. A lady I know and like who recently complained that a Marx Brothers revival was a nasty attack on Italians and deaf mutes would hate Young Frankenstein. I enjoyed it a lot.

The script starts with a young academic named Frederick Frankenstein (who insists on its being pronounced “Fronken-steen“) happily tenured at an American college teaching the physiology and disorders of the human brain. Learning of the death of his father Dr. Victor Frankenstein, he reluctantly agrees to travel to a gloomy gothic castle in Transylvania to settle his late parent’s estate.

What follows is a sendup of the events of the 1931 James Whale movie, as Frederick is plunged into a repetition of his father’s work (“Join the Family Business”) of electrifying life into corpses dug up from Transylvanian graveyards. Jared W Hussey, joyously graduating from good-guy lead tenor roles into knock-about comedy, is a fine, befuddled Frederick. He’s ably assisted by Noel Yuri-Bermudez who does a clever imitation of Marty Feldman’s screen performance as the physically twisted, cross-eyed, but emotionally helpful dwarf Igor. Then there’s Christiana Meeks, looking gorgeous and singing gorgeously as a toothsome blonde medical aide named Inga. A fourth member of the lab team is Donna Federico in the role of a gloomy German housekeeper named Frau Blücher. She provides the comic high point of the evening with a bizarre imitation of Marlene Dietrich singing out a confession that “He (i.e. the late Doctor Victor) Vas My Boyfriend.”

The work of the Frankenstein team, as we all know, soon produces a resurrected Monster (“Life, Life!”) who looks like a murderous ghoul but, like his predecessors of former versions, is really a wistful victim of mob ignorance. The musical makes the point delightfully as the ensemble do a bang-up job playing a chronically stupid posse searching for the escaped Monster, who keeps appearing, undetected, affable and in full view of their frantic efforts to find him. The famed Karloff role is played here with a lot of charm and assurance by Clark M Brown. He and Hussey provide another musical show stopper in white tie and tails singing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which would be even funnier left as a straight duet without adding Inga and the ensemble to the mixture.

One sequence I’ve never found easy to watch is Brooks’ reworking of a scene where the Monster, fleeing the angry mob, stumbles into the hut of a blind hermit. As the two social outcasts eat, drink and smoke cigars together, they cement a friendship that eases their shared loneliness. It’s sentimental but it works in the old Karloff/Whale movie. The same things happen in the Brooks version. But this time around the blind man unwittingly scalds his guest with hot soup, stains his friend’s pants with misdirected red wine and scares him off with a flaming cigar. Brown and Tom Kiatta as the Hermit play the scene for sincerity and sympathy, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth of at least one member of the audience.

The final and inspired piece of improbability follows on the arrival in Transylvania (“Surprise!”) of Frederick’s fiancee Elizabeth, attractively played and beautifully sung by Malinda DeRouen. She shows up wearing the glad rags of a Manhattan heiress, gets carried off by the Monster and ends the evening in the same costume Elsa Lanchester wore in another popular Karloff/Whale horror film called Bride of Frankenstein. Enough said.

The show plays weekends through December 9th.

Photo by Richard Green